Research

The Missionary Majority: American Evangelicals and Power in a Postcolonial World shows how global missionary work by millions of American evangelicals shaped the conservative resurgence in American society in the mid- and late twentieth century. The book demonstrates that missionary networks created transnational feedback loops through which American evangelicals took lessons from their international activism and applied them to political and cultural battles in the United States. Missionary work has long been a framework through which white actors tried to save and develop those whom they perceived to be others — racial others, cultural others, religious others, or moral others. This book asks how changes to that framework produced new lessons about race, diversity, and power for white evangelicals back in the United States. American evangelicals became the majority of the world’s Protestant missionaries and built some of the world’s largest and wealthiest non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in the mid- and late twentieth century, and this project draws on never-before-seen sources to examine those transnational actors and their impact. By analyzing evangelicals’ global work and its effects on American society, this research breaks new ground in the studies of decolonization, American international influence, and US religion and politics.

************

Missionaries most often appear in the story of colonialism, then they largely disappear from the historical narrative as colonialism begins its decline in the mid-twentieth century. But missionaries did not disappear in the mid- and late twentieth century; rather, their numbers increased dramatically, and Americans — specifically, American evangelicals — became the front-runners in this global growth. Today two million Americans travel around the world each year on mission trips, through over 1000 organizations, with a combined annual budget of over ten billion dollars. The scope of American evangelicals’ investment in and commitment to global mission work raises the question: how did such large-scale global activism shape the millions of Americans who participated in it, and how did it shape US society and politics?

The Missionary Majority demonstrates that participating in global mission work taught millions of American evangelicals how they should understand and relate to those whom they perceived to be others – racial others, cultural others, religious others, and moral others. After World War II, the global mission field became a world of anticolonial revolutions and independence movements, and these changes empowered communities across the Global South to confront American missionaries about their complicity in global hierarchies of race, culture, and class. Dealing with those challenges and criticisms around the world altered American evangelicals’ beliefs about race, multiculturalism, immigration, church-state relations, and sex. Applying those new beliefs to their political engagement and culture wars in the US, American evangelicals sought to save and develop American society by using the mindsets and methods that they had forged through their earnest efforts to save the world.

Beginning in the post-World War II period and continuing through the early 2000s, The Missionary Majority traces the ways that evangelicals’ global activism fed back into and transformed US politics and culture. Chapter One charts how domestic social and political conditions after World War II enabled US evangelicals to build and expand their global missionary enterprise, and demonstrates that missionaries taught American evangelicals that they had a unique opportunity and personal responsibility to save the world, lessons that undergirded evangelicals’ cultural chauvinism and fervent activism. Chapter Two examines how missionaries encountered critiques of American racism around the world, repented of their racial prejudices, and then returned to the US and pleaded with white Christians to end segregation in the US for the sake of saving black and brown souls across the world. Missionaries advised evangelicals to understand racism as a problem of personal feelings rather than social structures, which in practice taught evangelicals how to embrace racial diversity while preserving structural whiteness in US society. Chapter Three highlights how missionaries clashed with critics of missionization across the Global South and then traveled back to the US and taught evangelicals how to be the outnumbered yet powerful and benevolent members of a diversifying community. Missionaries instructed US evangelicals not to fear the growing number of immigrants from Latin America, Asia, and Africa, but rather to appreciate diversity as an opportunity to do mission work inside of the US. Chapter Four demonstrates how short-term mission trips in the 1970s-2000s taught millions of American evangelicals how to use foreign people as the raw material for white Americans’ self-actualization. Chapter Five explores how the end of the Cold War gave evangelicals opportunities to spread Protestant hegemony abroad in ways that they were trying to extend it at home, by putting Bible-based curriculum and devotional prayer in public schools. Chapter six shows how missionaries reframed US evangelicals’ discourse about AIDS by recasting the epidemic not as God’s judgement for sexual sin but as the poignant suffering of black and brown families that US Christians could relieve, thereby making possible evangelicals’ transformation from the most implacable foes of AIDS victims domestically to the face of AIDS relief internationally.

Far from disappearing after the decline of colonialism, missionary work flourished in the postcolonial era and constituted an important part of American international power in this period. Through missionary networks, millions of Americans exerted their influence around the world, and their global experiences refashioned the political and cultural priorities that evangelicals championed back home in the US.